It has long been known that the mental and behavioral lives of non-human animals are much richer than one might at first imagine. Comparative psychology is an effort to understand the logic behind the way these life forms act, think and feel.
Of course, it is also a field of study that is not exempt from criticism of both the use of the comparative method and ethical approaches. Let’s see what this branch of research in psychology consists of .
What is comparative psychology?
Comparative psychology has been defined as an effort to understand the behavior and mental life of animals in general, based on the idea that there are certain characteristics of these two areas that have evolved over time.
Thus, comparative psychology is not only a type of research in which the similarities and differences of different types of animals (including our own species) are compared without further ado, but it also assumes that behind these similarities and differences there is a story about how the mental life and behavior of these life forms evolved through the passage of one generation to the next and through the creation of new species.
The use of the comparative method
Thus, comparative psychology uses the comparative method , which consists of studying psychological processes in certain species and seeing how these conclusions can be extrapolated to other species.
In general, studies are focused on seeing at what moment in evolutionary history certain psychological characteristics appear and, from there, verifying how they evolved until reaching the most “evolved” animal species in a given characteristic.
In practice, this means that the species whose behavior and mental processes are to be studied by indirectly investigating related species are almost always ours. However, many researchers believe that the purpose of comparative psychology should not be an excuse to end up talking about human psychology, but that the mental life and behavior of non-human animal species is of interest in itself .
Origins of comparative psychology
Although the comparison between the animal mind and the human mind has always had a certain presence in psychology and philosophy, it was Darwin who practically placed it in the center. His theory proposed that the evolutionary continuity between animals and humans at the biological level could also be extended to other levels .
Comparative psychology was founded in Great Britain from Darwinism. Those who started the branch wanted to do with behavior the same thing that biologists did with anatomy: define the levels of complexity of their object of study, going so far as to speak of a possible mind, more or less sophisticated, that would mediate these behaviors. .
Differences between comparative psychology and ethology
Although the border is not clear -since its object of study was similar-, important clues to know if we are on one side or the other:
- Ethology has its origins in Europe , while comparative psychology became popular in the United States after its creation in Great Britain.
- Comparative psychology is part of psychology and ethology is closer to the field of zoology.
- Ethology places more emphasis on instinct and the natural behavior of species in their own environment, while comparative psychology does so on learning and developing theories of behavior.
- The methods in comparative psychology are experimental , that is, they focus on laboratory work. Instead, ethology is based on field observation, in a context where the observer does not take part under any circumstances.
Animal experimentation or observation?
In principle, there is nothing in the definition of which psychology is compared with which one can assume that it depends only on the experimental method; It can also be based on field observations made in the natural terrain in which a species lives, as ethology has traditionally done .
However, in practice, experimentation is the most common option in comparative psychology, for two reasons:
- It’s cheaper and faster.
- Possible unforeseen events are avoided.
- It lets you isolate the variables much better.
- Discarding the influence of a species-specific natural environment makes it easier to draw conclusions that provide information about human behavior.
This obviously means that comparative psychology has been heavily criticized for cases of animal abuse , such as Harry Harlow’s experiment and monkeys deprived of contact with their mother during the first few weeks of life.
Comparative psychology and behaviorism
Historically, behaviorism has been the mainstream of psychology that has drawn most heavily on comparative psychology to make discoveries.
This is because, as behavioral researchers have focused on those components of psychology that can be objectively recorded and quantified, they have assumed that contingencies, which for them were the basic building blocks of behavior patterns, can be studied. in its most basic elements in the forms of life, with a nervous system less complex than the human one.
Thus, for example, BF Skinner became known for his experiments with pigeons, and Edward Thorndike, one of the forerunners of behaviorism, established theories about the use of intelligence in experiments with cats.
Evidently, Ivan Pavlov, who laid the groundwork for behaviorism to develop by studying simple conditioning, experimented with dogs from the field of physiology . Even Edward Tolman, a researcher trained in behaviorism who questioned the assumptions of this psychological trend, did so by studying rats.
The possibilities of this branch of psychology
The wild appearance of the animals, the absence of human-like facial gestures and language make us tend to assume that everything related to the psychology of these life forms is simple. Comparative psychology attaches great importance to the way animals behave .
In any case, it is hotly debated whether he does this through the eyes of human beings or whether he seeks a genuine understanding of the mental lives of these organisms. There are many different animal species, and traditionally comparative psychology has primarily studied non-human primates and some animals that can adapt well to domestic life, such as rats or guinea pigs.
The possibilities of comparative psychology have to do with a better understanding of the forms of life that surround us and also with a deeper knowledge of the patterns of behavior inherited for millennia through our evolutionary lineage.
Its limitations have to do with the use of the comparative method, with which it is never quite clear to what extent it is possible to extrapolate conclusions from one species to another . And, of course, the ethical problems posed by animal experimentation have fully entered the debate over whether or not comparative psychology is useful.
The moral discussion of the experimental method
Comparative psychology studies are usually carried out in laboratories , which is why many of them receive quite a bit of criticism, since often, to control variables, the circumstances or environments that are created are too artificial.
For some experts, the behavior of non-human animals has no validity outside their natural environment, since captivity would be a condition capable of distorting any result. In addition, fortunately in recent years we have come a long way in terms of ethical principles that apply to animal studies.
So if there are so many weaknesses, why are these studies being done in laboratories? Some compelling reasons for this practice would be the following:
- It is cheaper and faster.
- Possible unforeseen events that occur in nature, such as predation or weather events, are avoided.
- It makes it possible to isolate the variables to be studied much better.
- The fact of ruling out the influence of the natural environment makes it easier to draw conclusions about the behavior of human beings, since they are considered “clean” results.
Some of the studies that we now consider classic, such as Harry Harlow’s, show the need for a new approach to this discipline. In this example, attachment styles in macaques were studied, separating the pups from the mother as soon as they were born. The little monkeys were kept in sensory isolation cells and made to choose between a monkey-shaped doll and a cylinder with a feeding bottle.
Beyond the discussions, the knowledge of comparative psychology has a value. Not only do they give us a more global perspective of our own nature, but it also allows us to understand others that are part of our ecosystems, with which we somehow coexist.